Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Alternative 90s. The AV Club's Restrospective: 1990

In reviewing the Top 50 Albums of the 00's, even though I have clearly enjoyed the journey through the decade's best, I have found myself longing for a more prolific time. I turned 14 in 1989, the perfect age to receive the gift that was the ascension of Alternative Rock. My rock and roll formative years began right then. It was a tremendous time to care about music, and thanks to my own impulses and a series of friends who helped me connect to everything I was hearing, everything that happened during the entire decade had a profound effect on me. I wasn't a hipster savant who found the greatest unknown rawk discoveries way before anyone else. But I kind of felt like it anyway. Growing up just outside Chicago, we had unfettered access to some of the world's greatest record stores, random independent and college radio stations, and even some all-ages shows. In some ways, it was the first time I truly cared about something.

Over at the AV Club, Steven Hyden is reviewing the 1990s Grunge movement year by year. I happen to find this a totally worthy endeavor for the reasons above and many more. Much of what happened in those halcyon days has been lost because there was no internet to document them, or because nobody's made an iconic movie yet, or simply because we've all moved on.

What Hyden is doing is more important than it seems at first glance. If you're in your 30s, then I urge you to read the feature and find your own reaction. If you're younger, well, as Hyden says, I shouldn't say something like "you missed out!" But really, you did. And if you want to know why mainstream music sucks ass the way it does today, it's important to understand that it once sucked even more ass, and somehow that got fixed, but only for a couple of years before it rapidly eased its way back to sucking ass.

Because I have my own ideas and experience (and blog), I'm going to post my reaction to each of Hyden's ten segments. Up first, Part 1: 1990.

Hyden sets the table well. He gives his background, calling himself an "awkward adolescent from Appleton, Wisconsin." The context is important here. He doesn't completely explain quite how bad the music scene had been. He mentions some of the atrocities, but it's important to remember that by the end of 1989 we're only a year removed from New Kids on the Block. We were at the apex of Richard Marx, Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli. "Rock" music offered Poison, Great White, Mike and the Mechanics, White Lion, and a duet between Cher and Peter Cetera. Vanilla Ice was yet to come. Hyden chooses to play a bit loose with the timeline here as the majority of the column deals with the mainstream arrival of Nirvana's "Nevermind," something that didn't really start happening until 1992 (the album was released at the end of September in 1991). Just so we're clear about the context, here are the top 12 singles from 1990:
1. Hold On, Wilson Phillips
2. It Must Have Been Love, Roxette
3. Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinead O'Connor
4. Poison, Bell Biv Devoe
5. Vogue, Madonna
6. Vision of Love, Mariah Carey
7. Another Day In Paradise, Phil Collins
8. Hold On, En Vogue
9. Cradle of Love, Billy Idol
10. Blaze of Glory, Jon Bon Jovi
11. Do Me!, Bell Biv Devoe
12. How Am I Supposed to Live Without You, Michael Bolton

So yes, apart from Billy Idol's death rattle, those were dark days indeed, especially in Appleton, Wisconsin.

But given that we're here to celebrate the past, perhaps it doesn't make sense to dwell too much on the bleak state of pop music entering the decade. Hyden jumps forward because if you're going to talk about rock in the 90s, the discussion must begin with Nevermind. And he couldn't be more on-point with the key issues:

"Kurt Cobain turned himself into a radio star at a time when somebody like him becoming a radio star seemed unfathomable."
"These guys were not supposed to be here, on MTV, sandwiched between Jane Child and Lisa Stanfield videos at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday."
The truly amazing thing that happened in the 1990s is that for a brief period of time, the inmates ran the asylum. Or at least that's the way it seemed. Bands that had no business becoming rock stars became the biggest rock stars in the world. And like any revolution, it happened seemingly without warning. After controlling which bands made it big throughout the 80s, the industry was caught by surprise. This never happens in mainstream music. I hope that we get into the details in the entries regarding subsequent years.

Eventually, Hyden steers away from the musical implications and arrives at the social ones, saying:
"I honestly wonder if the rise of grunge and alternative rock in the early ’90s will be the last time that a musical movement has that kind of impact on youth culture."
That topic, only touched upon, leaves a lot of room for exploration. Did youth culture actually change in ways it wouldn't have otherwise? Was the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video the reason tattoos became mainstream? (I had always attributed this to Alan Iverson, but I now question that theory.) Did young Americans really start to think a different way? Is The Big Bang Theory in the here and now because of Nevermind? These questions deserve their own posting, and perhaps Hyden will go into more detail later. As someone who lived through it, it's impossible to answer. There's no "control sample" me.

To sum up, an excellent start to the series for Hyden, and I greatly look forward to the subsequent entries. 1991 is already up, and we'll take a look at it here as soon as possible.

Please share your thoughts. Where were you when your face first melted to something other than Hendrix or Hazel? And what do you think of Hyden's premises?

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